Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Lent and the Sufficient Work of Christ

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on March 5, 2014 at 9:05 pm

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been inclined to focus on the practice of Lent.  I’ve seen my Roman Catholic friends do this for years, but I never gave it much thought.  Yet Lutherans, Anglicans, and other denominations inheriting the Reformation tradition also observe this part of the liturgical calendar.  Most people who practice Lent sacrifice something from their daily life (usually a food item) from Ash Wednesday until Maundy Thursday.

Its purported purpose is to imitate the suffering and temptation of Christ during His forty-day fast in the desert.  In centuries past, the methods of penance were much more serious compared to the types of self-denial we commonly see today.  Giving up sweets (for example) during the Lenten season may indeed trivialize the sufferings of Christ, but that’s not my main reason for opposing the practice.

Of the many theological errors before us, one of the most common is the confusion between historia salutis (redemption accomplished) and ordo salutis (redemption applied).  The former represents those once-for-all, unrepeatable events in redemptive history.  Roman Catholicism, for example, makes the serious mistake of confusing historia salutis and ordo salutis with respect to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (i.e., their practice of the Mass in which Christ is “re-sacrificed”).  Charismatic movements do the same thing with Pentecost.

Similarly, the practice of Lent takes the historia salutis event of Christ in the desert and turns it into something which can be counterfeited on an individual level.  In doing so, it fits perfectly with a works-righteousness mentality.  Inherent within Lent is the idea that its practice brings one “closer to God,” making a man-centered mockery of God’s grace.

Another unbiblical aspect of Lent is the very public manner in which it is practiced.  Jesus condemned hypocrites for their outward displays of piety (Matt. 6:1-18), revealing the self-righteous nature of such gestures.  Lent is very legalistic as well and Paul warns us against binding the conscience in areas which God has left free (Rom. 14:1-12).  True sanctification involves the recognition that our consciences are liberated by Christ’s teachings (Mark 7:17-18) while also understanding that the corrupt, sinful heart is what separates us from God (vv. 20-23).

Looking at this unbiblical practice of self-imposed legalism, one can easily see why the Puritans decided to scrap the liturgical calendar entirely.  The human heart loves this type of legalism and it greatly obscures the Gospel.  There is something seriously wrong when people begin to see the Christian life in these terms.  Having a meatless Friday isn’t going to bring us closer to God.

Indeed, the Christian life involves a daily introspection coram Deo that is much deeper than giving up chocolate or television for forty days.  It’s understandable that Roman Catholics would keep this practice given their view of justification, but it pains me to see fellow Protestants engaging in Lent because it completely goes against the grain of Reformation theology.

Sacrificing a favorite food or pastime is not a means of sanctification.  We must allow the simplicity of the Gospel to break through the traditions of man, even the seemingly innocuous ones.  There are much bigger issues out there than Lent to be sure, but it’s a man-centered legalism which has no place among the people of God.  The work of Christ is sufficient.

Josh Dermer

Josh is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington DC and a member of Covenant Reformed Baptist Church, Warrenton, VA.

  1. I’m not going to argue in favor of Lent, but I’m also not going to assume all who give up something are doing so for legalistic reasons. You said, “Sacrificing a favorite food or pastime is not a means of sanctification.” I would agree that, no, it’s not sanctifying in and of itself. But when we fast (giving up a legitimate need and pleasure), do we not do it to spend that time alone with God, to remember that life is more than the bread we eat, and that we live by every word that comes from the mouth of God? What if we gave up time on Facebook to spend it in the Word, in prayer, or in service to the Lord? How would that be legalistic? Would that not be sanctifying instead?

    I understand where you’re coming from. There’s rending of the garments, but very often little rending of the hearts. Paul did tell the Colossians:
    2:20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— 21 “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” 22 which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

    And yet Paul counseled the married in Corinth:
    1 Cor. 7:4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

    So apparently giving up a legitimate pleasure can be a means to sanctification in at least one situation (again, not automatically, it’s a means to an end, and it’s voluntary). And, interestingly enough, Paul warns against depriving themselves for too long, lest Satan does tempt them!

  2. I’m not going to argue in favor of Lent, but I’m also not going to assume all who give up something are doing so for legalistic reasons. You said, “Sacrificing a favorite food or pastime is not a means of sanctification.” I would agree that, no, it’s not sanctifying in and of itself. But when we fast (giving up a legitimate need and pleasure), do we not do it to spend that time alone with God, to remember that life is more than the bread we eat, and that we live by every word that comes from the mouth of God? What if we gave up time on Facebook to spend it in the Word, in prayer, or in service to the Lord? How would that be legalistic? Would that not be sanctifying instead?

    I understand where you’re coming from. There’s rending of the garments, but very often little rending of the hearts. Paul did tell the Colossians:
    2:20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— 21 “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” 22 which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

    And yet Paul counseled the married in Corinth:
    1 Cor. 7:4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

    So apparently giving up a legitimate pleasure can be a means to sanctification in at least one situation (again, not automatically, it’s a means to an end, and it’s voluntary). And, interestingly enough, Paul warns against depriving themselves for too long, lest Satan does tempt them!

  3. I didn’t know that some protestants engaged in lent, good to know and good to know what to say to those who do this. I’ve been wondering lately how fasting brings us closer to God. I know that it helps us keep our eyes off ourselves and the world and that it causes us to think of God when we get hungry and focus on praying more often, but does it really bring us closer to God? Do you think that is what the people think when they participate in lent? A lot of people are followers and do what the church tells them without knowing why they are doing it, it’s no excuse, but I think that is partly why it continues, no one is questioning it.

  4. [...] A Reformed Baptist seminary student shares critical thoughts on the practice of Lent in Lent and The Sufficient Work of Christ. [...]

  5. [...] understanding that the corrupt, sinful heart is what separates us from God (vv. 20-23).”  Continue Reading … Share this:EmailRedditDiggPrintLinkedInFacebookStumbleUponTwitterTumblrLike this:LikeBe the first [...]

  6. [...] week I was pleasantly surprised to see the Reformed Baptist Fellowship blog re-post my article on Lent.  It’s not an issue quite like justification or the Trinity, but it’s important [...]

  7. Reblogged this on Only By Grace and commented:
    Here are some great thoughts on Lent.

  8. This is strange reasoning, to say the least.

    Lent among Protestants is not a means of sanctification, but a tool for devotion.

  9. thank you josh. i have wondered about this.

  10. I don’t know why we need Lent for fasting. If we turned the Lord’s Day into a feast day, then each week day would be a form of fasting – D.G. Hart

  11. Hi Jonathan,
    the historical meaning of lent was a form of work righteousness. Lent was not created as a tool of devotion but a means to “make up” for sins before God. But as the Bible teaches us, there is nothing that we can do to make up for our sins, nor is it a means of earning God’s favor. Only Christ is able to do that for those who seeks forgiveness before God. It’s a gift of God.

    Devotion to God should not be marked by a calendar month. It should be a daily practice for all who profess to follow the Lord Jesus. It should be as common as taking a shower in the morning. It should be a way of life, not a holiday or x number of months out of a year.

  12. As I approach lent this year (and happen to be a former RBC member, I came across this post). It never ceases to amaze me how readily RBC people assume some sort of misplaced intent on devotional practices of other denominations, most specifically the Catholics.

    So I want to clear up some things. 1. Lent is not some sort of meaningless ritual for all Catholics. I will grant that there are many non-practicing Catholics who take part in Lent as a matter of culture/tradition, not as part of their life in the church. Last year as we began Lent, our priest reminded the faithful that the purpose of giving something up is to replace it with a good that develops us spiritually in our relationship with God. Something I’ve done in the past is to give up time on Facebook in order to replace that time with prayer and Scripture (very much the same spirit as commenter MarieP said).

    In addition, just to clarify, Catholics do not believe that Jesus is sacrificed over and over again in every mass, confusing, as you said, the work accomplished with the work applied. Rather, by God’s power and promise that ONE sacrifice is re-presented, made present in each mass. It’s quite a bit different. You can easily find out about this yourself by picking up the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    Finally, participating in devotional practices is not something that the Catholic believes “merits” salvation as is commonly asserted by RBCs. I’d like to just quote our dear Pope Benedict XVI when he said in his encyclical, Spe Salvi: “The Kingdom of God is a gift, and precisely because of this, it is great and beautiful, and constitutes the response to our hope. And we cannot-to use the classical expression-“merit” Heaven through our works. Heaven is always more than we could merit, just as being loved is never something “merited”, but always a gift.”

    So, though you are correct that the Christian is always in danger of trusting in his own merit rather than the grace of God (clearly warned against in the Catholic Council if Trent) it seems to me that the Christian could also be in constant danger of trusting in the merit of the not-doing of pious devotions and practices, simultaneously misrepresenting the beliefs & intentions of those who participate. Is that not just as much a merit-based assessment of your spiritual state?

    But it is just this sort of thing that makes me appreciate Catholicism (and finally join them!). The season of Lent is not required in order to fast, nor is it the only time that Catholics do fast. The Liturgical year and the devotional practices that go along with it are one of many ways that the Church remains constantly and publicly aware of the life of Christ. I cannot tell you HOW absolutely joyful Easter feast is when set in contrast to the season of prayer, sacrifice, especially intensified during Maundy Thirsday, & Good Friday. This is a way that the Church impresses in us in a very tangible way the great Sacrifice and the great Joy that comes to us through that Sacrifice.

  13. Reblogged this on The Protestant Pulpit and commented:
    A good blog.

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